So, farewell then, Canada at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. Coming in as outside contenders for the big trophy, the team will instead fail to get out of the group stage entirely thanks to a 4-0 Gallic gangbang of a loss against France.
We always knew that this would be the group of death: I even said so when the group was drawn. I was really wearing my psychic hat when I wrote that article back in November:
In order to get out of the group, Canada will desperately need a result against the French: they are probably what will swing us either in or out. It's possible for us to get one, but it will be a very, very evenly-fought contest and we can take nothing for granted.
Canada was technically still alive after that horrendous loss but a 1-0 victory for Germany over Nigeria put paid to the formality of our hopes: Canada can finish no better than third in the group and out of the running. The tournament, given major coverage on CBC and Rogers Sportsnet and fed to a Canadian public pumped up with stories of a World Cup that Canada might win, has been a major disappointment. Millions of Canadians were told that Canada might be competitive on an international stage and then oh, no, we got metaphorically sodomized by France. France!
There can be no excuses. The Canadian Soccer Association had granted the women's team unprecedented levels of support. They spent big money on marquee friendlies, training camps in expensive warm-weather cities, and a coaching staff led by the famous and experienced Carolina Morace. Quite rightly, you may say, the CSA recognized that the women had a chance to make some noise and gave them priority over the men's program. The results: a CONCACAF championship, a bevy of meaningless but welcome friendly titles, and international embarrassment.
Naturally, national navel-gazing has begun. We should fire the coach. We should tear down the whole program. We should re-do the way youth soccer works in this country. We should do all these things immediately.
Obviously soccer in this country isn't perfect and some reform is needed (I like basically nothing about the way our youth system works). Yet as somebody who's usually the first to get the pitchforks and torches and join in the mob... and I can't believe I'm saying this... calm the hell down! Holy fuck! It was one game! One catastrophic game, but one game all the same. There's no team in the world that hasn't had them.
Before we start making kneejerk moves, let's look at this team in context. Prior to this World Cup, here's Canada's ten most recent results from oldest to newest. I've got to warn you, this will be a bit of a data dump, but I have a couple points to make from all this:
- Canada 1 - 0 Scotland on March 2, 2011: the first game of the 2011 Cyprus Cup. A fairly effortless game against a third-rate team with the scoreline not belying Canada's control. Emily Zurrer does the damage.
- Canada 1 - 0 Italy on March 4: Canada turns around to defeat the good-but-still-not-world-class Italians on a Jonelle Filigno goal. Again, Canada never looked like losing.
- Canada 2 - 0 England on March 7: more easy clean-sheet victories for Canada, this time against a good, if second-rate, English team. Canadian goals by Christine Sinclair and Brittany Timko.
- Canada 2 - 1 Netherlands on March 9: horror of horrors, Canada concedes a goal and need extra time to beat the uninspiring Dutchwomen. Filigno and Zurrer each get their second of the tournament to give Canada the Cyprus Cup in undefeated style.
- Canada 0 - 1 Sweden on April 2: this was Canada's first loss since June 23 against the United States and Canada's first loss against non-top-two opposition since April 24, 2010. The game took place in Italy against a very, very strong Swedish team; probably the third-best in the world.
- Canada 1 - 1 Switzerland on May 15: okay, that was a letdown; Switzerland ought not to be in Canada's league and failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup (although they got a bear of a draw in qualifying). Kaylyn Kyle scored for the good guys.
- Canada 2 - 1 Switzerland on May 18: yeah, fuck you, Switzerland! Canada fell down 1-0 and didn't exactly win with style: a Swiss own goal followed by a Christina Julien winner in the second half.
- Canada 2 - 0 Netherlands on May 28: an expected result against the Dutch and a bit of revenge for the barnburner in the Cyprus Cup. Goals by Jodi-Ann Robinson and Christina Julien.
- Canada 1 - 0 Hungary on June 7: another efficient friendly win. Hungary shouldn't be able to get points off of Canada and didn't. Diana Matheson scored for Canada.
- Canada 2 - 0 Bad Korea on June 14: in their final World Cup tuneup the Canadian ladies crush the Norks. Filigno and Kyle strike again for Canada.
So what's Canada's damage in their first ten games before the World Cup? One loss to one of the very best teams in the world, Sweden. One draw to Switzerland, which would be a real disappointment. Eight wins against opposition that was mostly not quite world-class (England and arguably the North Koreans being the exceptions) but was certainly never make-weight garbage on the scale of Armenia or St. Kitts: most of those teams came out of the tough UEFA qualifying cycle and any of them could have got into the World Cup on their day.
I'd consider an 8-1-1 record very good against any half-decent competition. This is just looking at the recent past: if we go further back, we'll see wins over Sweden and China, a couple draws against Brazil that really should have been wins, with only Germany and the United States spoiling one long, uninterrupted party since 2010.
Nor was Canada relying too heavily on a few top players. In those ten games I just listed, Christine Sinclair scored once. Melissa Tancredi didn't score at all. There was squad rotation at all positions as players got a fair chance to fight for a roster spot and proved their mettle.
The team opened the World Cup by losing 2-1 to Germany. The Germans are, for my money, the best team in the history of women's soccer. They're ranked second in the world but non-American pundits tend to place them number one. They were playing at home before 75,000 screaming fans. Even those, like me, who highly respected the Canadian team gave them only a puncher's chance against Germany. Canada, however, played the Germans extremely tough and, on another day, could have drawn them. It was a great start to the tournament, then everything went wrong.
France is no minnow. They're an extremely competitive team who got through qualifying in style. They probably had the easiest group in UEFA but there's something mouthdropping about a team which went through the group stage of World Cup qualifying scoring fifty goals and conceding zero. Their group was weak but there wasn't a Malta or an Azerbaijan in the bunch: they just dominated the field. When they got Italy in the knockout round they brushed aside a strong team 3-2 on aggregate in a two-legged tie that was nowhere near as close as it sounds.
They say you hire a manager to win the big game. Maybe, but when a team handles all comers for a year, gives the best team in the world, and then happens to save their very worst performance for the time when they can least afford it, is it time to tear down the whole works?
I'm a charter member of the "Carolina Morace is overrated" club. I think her half-a-holdout was childish and I'm not sure I could have been as forgiving as the CSA if I were in their position. But even I will say that one (awful) loss isn't a sign of deep, structural failings. We should learn from the game. We should make improvements. What we should not do is panic, or convince ourselves that this game proves anything besides "I guess it wasn't our day".
If we go whole hog, if we declare "we need to rip out the whole mess so we can do better when Canada hosts in 2015", odds aren't that you'll improve anything. You'll end up with a program that's different, not better. This team's proven that it can get results; it's just also proven that soccer is unpredictable sometimes. You'll never find a coach good enough to take that away.